First Things First: Conditions for child’s first cellphone depend on the child

Lauren Hill

When should I buy my child a phone?

How you answer this question is important. As we continue our series on how technology affects us and our relationships, this question serves as a great reminder. When it comes to technology, things can get a little complicated.

So, if you're expecting an easy answer like, when they're 12, or when they enter ninth grade, I need to tell you, I wish it were that simple.

The easy answers probably aren't the best answers for your one-of-a-kind child. But let's get them out of the way.

The "when" isn't determined by things like:

› Your child really, really wants one.

› Your child's friends all have one.

› You've read somewhere that most kids get one when they're around 10.

› You've heard that Bill Gates made his kids wait until ninth grade.

We know better than to give our kids whatever they want. We're the parent. We often have to protect our kids from their wants. And don't let yourself feel pressured by how other people are parenting their kids.

I want to encourage you to focus on your relationship with your child and how to best prepare them for a tech-saturated future.

According to research, yes, most kids do get a phone around age 10. And they also have at least two social-media accounts by age 12. Your child isn't "most kids."

And it's true. Bill Gates made his kids wait until they were 14 before they got a smartphone. By the way, in 2010, when a New York Times reporter gushed to Steve Jobs, "Your kids must love the iPad, right?" Jobs replied, "They haven't used it. We limit the amount of technology our children use at home."

(If the creators of these technological marvels were cautious about how their kids used them ... you get the point.)

With some good parenting principles firmly in place, let's get practical. Here's what the experts are saying about when to give your child a phone.

(READ MORE: Tips for putting your phone in its place)

There is no one-size-fits-all answer. Don't focus on a certain age or grade; focus on your child. I generally don't like to answer questions with more questions, but consider the following:

1. Does your child need a full-blown smartphone or just a way to get in touch with you? There are phones and even watches that only allow calls and texts (And they're "cool.") Maybe that's where to start. What is the actual need you're addressing with a phone?

2. Where is your child developmentally? Have they developed appropriate levels of impulse and emotional control? Do they have good balance and boundaries with things like sleep, diet and exercise? Do they have a healthy sense of self? A smartphone can impact all of the above. Basically, are they ready?

3. Are you ready? Have you been setting an example of healthy phone habits? Do you have a plan for things like tech-free times and places in the home or for where their phone charges at night? Do you have a plan for how you'll monitor their phone use and shield them from the problematic parts of the digital world?

Technology like a phone is a tool. But it's a tool that powerfully magnifies and intensifies the qualities of the person holding it -- good or bad. If your child is impulsive, a phone will intensify their impulsivity. If your child has a poor self-image, a phone will magnify it.

Is it the right time to buy your child a phone? That isn't a question that can be answered with a simple number like their age or grade. It's a question that can only be answered by knowing your child.

Lauren Hall is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email her at